HBO's Togetherness: Hard to Define But Easy to Like
The new comedy series dodges bleakness thanks to its solid cast of affably flawed characters.
In the HBO universe, the comedies are not very difficult to distinguish. Girls is about girls, Looking is about gay guys, Veep is about politics, and Silicon Valley is about the world's most perfect handjob joke. Flying in the face of these easily-defined comedies is Togetherness, HBO's new comedy from mumblebrothers Mark and Jay Duplass. Togetherness is about ... living? Middle-class white heterosexuals in L.A.? The existential despair that comes with either not getting the life that you wanted or getting exactly the life that you wanted? These are all terrible tag lines. The good news is that the slice of life that Togetherness does present is carried off quite well by smart writing and a deeply funny and likable cast.
So ... what's it do?
Start with a couple, Brett and Michelle Pierson (played by Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynskey), her sister Tina (Amanda Peet), and his best friend Alex (Steve Zissis). Brett and Michelle are experiencing a lull in their marriage: not having sex, working their schedules around their toddler, chafing against the familiarity of their lives. Tina's a complete mess, rebounding off of a breakup, blatantly jealous of her younger sister for being the first to settle down. Alex is an actor who can't seem to rise above the level of commercials (he's played a hemorrhoid recently) and who's on the precipice of leaving L.A. for good as the story begins. Circumstance (or contrivance, if you're feeling ungenerous) leads Tina and Alex to move in with Brett and Michelle, and the series begins to poke at what I think is its core idea.
What struck me after the first three episodes was how this show is exploring the ways in which we need other people (and are needed by other people) to be there for each other. For support, sure. But sometimes—oftentimes, even—just to be there. As plus-ones, as other halves, in ways big and small. Sometimes to hold us together after a breakup. Sometimes, in Alex's own words, to be the "cog in the wheel that makes Beach Day better for you." If you've ever felt like your presence was required purely to fill up space in someone else's day, it's a dynamite observation.
These would all be slightly intriguing, but rather depressing, insights into the mundanity of our lives were it not for the cast, who are uniformly at the top of their game here. Duplass is blessed with an innate likeability that carries him through even when his characters are, by design, dull and uninspired. It's his chemistry with Lynskey that gets their storyline through the early going, and their ability to be funny just interacting with each other does a good job to offset what are admittedly some dusty tropes about a stagnating marriage.
Over the past decade, Lynskey has been the secret weapon in about a dozen motion pictures, from Away We Go to The Informant to this past year's Happy Christmas, and it's rather wonderful to see her get the chance to build something long-term on a show like this. In her hands, Michelle's restlessness is played as both meekly funny and poignant. She nails a scene where Michelle dips a toe in the realm of bedroom roughhousing (the absolute highlight of episode 2), and the beginnings of a plot in which she gets involved with a neighborhood charter school showcases the kind of likable yearning that she does so well.
As the less settled of the foursome, Peet and Zissis provide the more overtly comedic moments, acting essentially as kamikaze life coaches for one another. They've both reached the ends of their respective ropes, and while individually their instincts may have been to wallow, each one seems determined not to let the other one drown. Tina tries to whip Alex into shape so he doesn't fall into a box of pizza (as he's too fat for lead roles, but not fat enough for fat-guy roles, he finds himself at a bit of a crossroads, body-wise). Meanwhile, Alex rescues Tina from an embarrassing encounter with an ex.
The actors play off each other wonderfully. Peet has experienced quite the up-and-down career, as could be said of anyone with Saving Silverman and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip on their CV. But she's shown flashes of brilliance (check out Nicole Holofcener's Please Give), and in this role her eyes flash a ferocious kind of forty-something recognition that her character, while ragged, can be a force of nature. Zissis is a veteran of the Duplass universe and knows its rhythms and comedic style better than most, and it shows as he gives the early episodes their comedic zing. Together, Tina and Alex make for an excitingly unusual TV relationship. Which is why it would be a bummer if it goes in the romantic-yearning direction it seems to be headed. To the show's credit, even the characters onscreen seem to realize things are headed towards a trope, so perhaps there's enough self-awareness on the Duplasses' part to steer that story into something fresh.
This is one of those cable shows where you can't really hand down a verdict after a handful of episodes. But things are shaping up nicely. The characters will no doubt complicate and cross each other's paths. While we watch the story unfold, though, it's nice to be able to enjoy four very funny people ... living. Still a terrible tag line.